Executive Board

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

Hours before graduate public affairs student Gene Vela, a member of the Senate of College Councils’ Leadership Team, was involved in an armed standoff with police officers, the Senate’s Executive Board convened at his house for a scheduled meeting.

Though multiple board members referred The Daily Texan to the Senate’s faculty sponsor, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly, for comment, Reagins-Lilly denied any knowledge of the meeting in a statement. Reagins-Lilly was unavailable for an interview.

“We are unaware of any Senate of College Councils organizational or business activity scheduled on the evening in question,” Reagins-Lilly said in a statement. “Our priority in this matter remains the safety and well-being of our students.”

Senate President Andrew Clark said Senate board meetings are regularly scheduled events and are occasionally held off campus, as the board meeting was on Nov. 10. 

“We meet every Sunday at 7 p.m., whether it be Leadership Team or the Executive Board of Senate,” Clark said. “We meet every single Sunday, and sometimes we do meet off campus, but I don’t know how often.”

Clark said Reagins-Lilly would provide information and said despite the board meeting at Vela’s house, the standoff is not a Senate issue.

“Gene was a member of Senate and obviously was a contributor to the organization, but beyond that, this is something that’s kind of transcended the scope of Senate,” Clark said. “So that’s why it’s Dean Lilly’s responsibility. In any student conduct related matters, or legal things, it’s Dean Lilly’s role to take on.”

On Nov. 10, Austin Police Department officers arrived at Vela’s North Campus apartment, close to St. David’s Medical Center, after Vela called a friend and hung up abruptly. Police said the unidentified friend was concerned enough to call 911. 

When the police arrived, Vela aimed a handgun at them through his window, according to police department Assistant Chief Raul Munguia. After officers fired bullets into the corner of the window, Vela retreated, at which point police heard what they believed to be Vela loading and discharging more firearms.

Vela returned to his apartment window and pointed his laser-equipped handgun directly at the officers’ chests, and officers Leo Cardenas and Adrien Chopin fired, Munguia said. Vela was hit in the left torso and fell back. 

Clark said he was not aware Vela, who is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002, kept weapons in his apartment. 

“Gene is a veteran, we all knew that,” Clark said. “All I know is what’s been reported in the papers. I had no idea that he had weapons or any sort of anything else.”

Clark denied any further knowledge of what might have caused Vela to aim a handgun at officers that night. 

“I had no idea about any of the stuff that went on after the fact,” Clark said. “All I know is what’s been reported in the papers.”

In the days since the standoff, multiple members of the board have denied comment completely or referred to Clark and Reagins-Lilly for comment. 

Student Government President Horacio Villarreal said he was surprised at the seeming lack of transparency, but said he felt certain circumstances require private handling.

“This does somewhat surprise me,” Villarreal said. “In dealing with the Senate Executive Board this year, they’ve been incredibly transparent — but I trust them, they’re good people and I trust they’re making the right decision.”

Vela, who is being held in the Travis County Jail, has been charged with aggravated assault against a public servant. Currently, his bond remains set at $100,000.

Clarification: Soncia Reagins-Lilly, dean of students, was contacted for an interview but released a statement instead.

Photo Credit: Marshall Nolen | Daily Texan Staff

At Tuesday night’s Student Government meeting, John Brown, a government sophomore and a College of Liberal Arts representative in the Student Government Assembly, stood and announced that members of the assembly were considering writing legislation that would eliminate the Student Government Executive Board’s stipends, with a possible exception for members of the executive board who demonstrated financial need.

Though the resolution has yet to be written or introduced, it has already caused a stir among those familiar with the hallowed institution that is UT’s Student Government.

At first glance, reallocating the money spent on Executive Board stipends to other initiatives sounds like a no-brainer. Serving as Student Government President is, or at least is supposed to be, first and foremost a position of service.

But removing the stipends is problematic for more reasons than one, the most important of which is that it potentially limits the ability of disadvantaged students to serve on the executive board.

Though the supporters of this legislation claim that they’ll be able to adequately address this issue, at present, we remain skeptical.

Currently, the seven-member executive board, which includes the president, vice-president, chief of staff, communications director, internal and external financial directors and the administrative director, receive stipends ranging from $6,840 per year for the President to $3,420 per year for the remaining five members of the board.

Student Government President Horacio Villarreal and Vice President Ugeo Williams also receive limited tuition allotments. These would not be affected by the planned legislation.

“We’re not aiming to get rid of their tuition being waived, we’re not even looking into touching their tuition,” said Kallen Dimitroff, a supporter of the planned legislation. “I think everybody’s basically of the conclusion that they deserve to have their tuition waived.”

However, Dimitroff and others feel that the stipends provided to the executive board could be put to better use if the money was reallocated to the many registered student organizations that look to Student Government for appropriations.

That argument makes sense, but it doesn’t take into account the value of those appropriations to the students who currently serve on the executive board. Student Government Chief of Staff Braydon Jones, for example, works 20 hours a week, and is required, like all members of the executive board, to submit a fiscal report to the Chair of the Assembly’s Financial Committee. That’s where the process, admittedly, gets a little murky.

The Chair of the Finance Committee is required to review the reports and must approve the release of the stipends to executive board members.

“We usually write up, usually close to a page, not even double-spaced, a pretty lengthy monthly report,” Villarreal said of the process.  “That we send to Chris Jordan, the Head of Financial Affairs Committee … we pretty much tell them almost anything and everything that we did this month, for example, ‘I met with Rec Sports on a regular basis ... I’ve also gone on a cop ride-along to discuss student safety issues, I’ve approached the student services budget committee, we got 78 new followers on social media,’ stuff like that, tangible things that we’ve done, as well as little things that we’re prepping for.”

If members of the Student Government assembly besides Jordan are interested in reviewing the Executive Board’s work, they haven’t as of yet shown any interest in doing so; according to Jordan, not a single member of the assembly has asked to see the stipend reports since last May.

Jordan, who also works as a Daily Texan Columnist, is in support of keeping the tuition stipends. “The amount of time that the people on the Executive Board work doesn’t give them time to work any other jobs. What those stipends really are is the overhead cost of having an executive board,” Jordan said.

And while some members of the executive board say that they would be able to hold their current positions even without their stipend — Villarreal said that his family “would have to make it work,” — Jones said that three out of the seven executive board members would be unable to do their jobs without the stipends.

Dimitroff and other supporters of reallocating the supplements, admittedly, have attempted to confront the possibility that getting rid of the stipends could prevent economically disadvantaged students from participating in Student Government. However, Dimitroff said that the group authoring the legislation hasn’t yet “ironed out” the mechanism by which they would do so.

“We want to include a clause that if you are on financial aid, or in a special circumstance situation, that you can apply for a stipend through the financial aid office or through some other entity.” Dimitroff said. “Because if it's someone that needs something, then that we can do, but if it’s someone who comes from an affluent background that doesn’t necessarily need that money, I’d rather see Best Buddies, I’d rather see University Democrats, I’d rather see College Republicans get that money.”

However, limiting the stipends to just students who are receiving financial aid is problematic in that there’s a strong possibility that doing so would violate the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which protects a student’s personal and financial information from the pubic. Were the stipends only to be given to students with financial aid, which members of the Executive Board received aid would be readily apparent to anyone who looked at Student Government Budget, which would include all members of the finance committee and any interested member of the public, a clear violation of FERPA.        

Moreover, if candidates for Student Government were given the option to turn down stipends, we’re concerned that they would be pressured to do so during the election process, whether or not they could actually afford to keep the job once in office. More alarming, disadvantaged students may not run for elected office at all, knowing that voters may look poorly upon their financial need.

It’s true, yes, that other legislative student organizations, such as Senate of College Councils, do not receive stipends as large as Student Government’s. Villarreal said he didn’t see this as problematic.

“I know that the other two [legislative student organizations] put in a ton of work, but we focus more on the campus-wide ... In my view, we cover a far bigger umbrella, so that takes a little bit more effort, a little more time to budget that time.”

Of course, all of this fails to address the elephant in the room, which is the unspoken assumption that Student Government leaders tend to come from advantaged backgrounds. We’ll quote “Joe,” an anonymous online commenter, who left the following thought on a Daily Texan news story on the possible legislation:  “Hell yes it should be cut.. Most of the rich frat boys and sorority girls probably don’t even need it.”

What “Joe”— and those who want the stipend cut — fail to realize is that the stipend is one of the few institutional features of Student Government that works toward a more equal student representation. If students feel that riding along with cops and attending administrative meetings doesn’t warrant a salary paid for by student fees, we’d remind them that students get exactly the Student Government president that they elected. Cut stipends, and the field of possible candidates ­will only be narrowed, ensuring that a job that is traditionally bashed as “just a resume item” will now be a resume item only available to those students wealthy enough to afford it.